Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss-shay,
That was built in such a logical way
It ran a hundred years to a day,
And then, of a sudden, it - ah, but stay
I'll tell you what happened without delay
The Deacon's Masterpiece, by Oliver Wendell Holmes
My Uncle Bob died on Monday, Dec. 8, 2008, after living on this earth for 104 years and four days.
Some might say that age aside my uncle lived an entirely normal life. He spent his working career in one place, attended the same Methodist church for nearly 90 years, lived in the same house nearly all that time, raised his family, voted conservative Republican, and volunteered in his church and community.
But I would say that in addition to his advanced age, my uncle was a unique individual who touched many people in his long life, virtually all of them positively.
For the first phase of my life my family lived next door to Bob, and I saw him virtually every day for nearly 10 years. At that time I lived in a two-family farmhouse that was owned by my grandparents in Center Brunswick, New York.
The land that surrounded our houses was the remaining acreage of what had been my grandfather's farm, and I grew up on a 10 acre natural playground - fields that were bordered by a small stream - The Crick - in upstate New York dialect. Across the road that bordered our property was a marshy area where the crick occasionally overflowed, and in the spring and summer we would awaken to the liquid trill of red-winged blackbirds that gathered among the cattails and rushes.
On the hill behind our house wild strawberries flourished in the summer, and an apple orchard provided blooms in spring, fruit in fall, and endless play possibilities all year long. Wild honeysuckle could be found in abundance, and nearby woods made for countless adventures. Uncle Bob had chosen well when he decided to live there permanently.
Uncle Bob was born in Sayre, Pennsylvania, but his Dad, Robert Mandeville, for whom he was named, died when Bob was very young. His mom, my grandmother, eventually remarried. She had been Maude Clarke when she came to America from Ireland, alone, when she was 16 - then she became Maude Clarke Mandeville, then Maude Clarke Brimmer when she married my grandfather.
The family, which by then included my Uncle Vic, my Aunt Olive, and my mother, had lived in Waverly, New York, and moved to Center Brunswick around 1921 a couple of years after World War I ended. When Uncle Bob turned 100 he was feted by the Center Brunswick United Methodist Church, of which he had been a member for some 86 years, so he apparently arrived there around the time he was 14.
Originally the house that became the focal point of his life wasn't even a house; it was an outbuilding on my grandfather's farm. The main house sat on a slight knoll, and about 100 feet away was a farm building, a small barn according to my mother, that was falling into disrepair.
Uncle Bob, a carpenter, set about turning the barn into a house. I'm not sure exactly when he began living there, but it was sometime in the late 1940s after World War II ended and his family needed the room. Ultimately the old barn took on an entirely new look, in the Cape style. It was Bob's residence for about six decades and still stands there in excellent condition. Quality work or what?
When we were living up the hill from him, I remember Uncle Bob expanding the second floor of his house, then building a garage for his car, then adding onto the garage to provide storage for farm equipment, primarily my cousin Paul's tractor. He built an all-weather porch on the back, where the whole family would often gather on summer evenings to enjoy the breeze and watch the moon rise - without the inconvenience of mosquitoes.
I enjoyed the smell of fresh cut lumber and the shavings from his carpenter's plane when Bob was working, and I hung around as much as I could when he was on a project.
The house and surrounding yard and gardens were always well kept. Bob was "a stickler" as he used to say, about keeping things in good working order. His tools were stored in the basement, and he had peg boards on the walls above his workbench with the outline of every hand tool he owned indelibly drawn on them so he knew where everything was supposed to go, and if anything was missing.
If I was to give you one adjective to best describe my uncle I would have to say "cheerful." He always seemed happy to see us, and greeted everyone with an exuberance that seems to be missing in modern society. In all the years I knew him I don't ever remember my Uncle Bob saying a bad word about anyone.
It was common to see Uncle Bob working outside, regardless of the season. But one of my fondest memories was of a summer day when he was washing his car in his driveway. My younger brother, Larry, who was maybe two years old, picked up Bob's garden hose and squirted our uncle, but also pointed it straight up, thus squirting himself as well, which caused him to drop it and run away laughing.
Bob picked up the hose and squirted him right back, adding to the fun. I was reminded of that scene at a family gathering a few years ago. My grandson, who was about two at that time, started picking apart his hamburger and throwing pieces at Uncle Bob, who picked them up and threw them right back.
Remember, this guy was now 100, but it didn't stop him from engaging in a mini-food fight with an opponent who was nearly a century his junior.
I don't want to give the impression that Bob's life was all wine and roses. It wasn't. In fact, he bore more than his share of burdens.
His only son, my cousin Paul, could give his father fits at times. Once Paul stuck an apple in the exhaust pipe of the school system's travelling music teacher's car. When she finished her class and started her car, the apple flew out of the tailpipe and right through a windowpane in the schoolhouse.
On another occasion Paul spent part of one Saturday afternoon lying under his dad's car with a hammer and screwdriver, poking holes in the muffler so the car sounded like a race car. I think that was listed among the "Things That Cause Parents To Look Skyward and Mumble."
But Paul was born with diabetes, and although he was immensely strong as a teenager, more than holding his own with farm chores - he also could put his back against the front of his tractor and lift it off the ground - the disease ultimately took his eyesight and then his life.
Bob was not a classic strongman, but he was an emotional rock. When my aunt Irene collapsed at Paul's funeral, no one was surprised that Bob was there to support her. He must have been enduring unimaginable pain himself, but his primary concern then was for his wife.
Bob's life away from home revolved around his work, his church and the Center Brunswick Volunteer Fire Department. Bob went to work for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, RPI, in Troy, as a carpenter in 1926 and stayed there for 47 years before retiring.
As a charter member of the volunteer fire department he not only worked in his community, but just around the time I was born he accompanied our neighbor Milo Hyde Sr., out of town to spend several days helping flood victims. Uncle Bob was a member of the Fire Police, and he directed traffic at emergencies until he was 99. He founded the local Boy Scouts chapter and was the first scoutmaster. I can still see him teaching my brother how to tie a square knot.
Bob was a member of the Methodist Church literally from the time he arrived in Center Brunswick until he died. He was a member of the church's Men's Club and bowled with his friends from that organization for decades.
But you know what I liked best about him with regards to religion? He was devout, but not pious. By that I mean, Bob was the guy who always said Grace at family gatherings, and it was always heartfelt and meaningful.
However, he never portrayed himself as "Holier Than Thou." He never looked down his nose at the less fortunate or the less reliable, and he never pushed his faith on others.
If you watched his actions though, you would be impressed by him as a man of quiet faith, and you would be inspired.
Even though he was rooted to his home and community, Bob travelled when the urge hit. He spent enough time in St. Petersburg, Florida, known irreverently as God's Waiting Room, to know that he couldn't wait that long, so he returned north.
He and my aunt Irene once showed up unannounced at my home in Connecticut. Seems they had been driving Rt. 44 from point to point, just to see what was there. They stayed for a chat and some lemonade, then were off to finish their adventure.
On his 90th birthday, as family members gathered to throw him a surprise party, Uncle Bob suffered a heart attack. But he didn't tell anyone until the next day when he finally called for an ambulance. He spent a couple of days in the hospital, and then went home, picking up his life as if nothing unusual had occurred.
Over time, Uncle Bob saw his son die, his wife die, his friends and other family members die. In recent years he lost his daughter.
Two decades ago, a few years after my aunt Irene died, Bob met and became close friends with a lady named Margaret Busby, and though they never married, and kept their own houses, they were virtually inseparable. She was a quiet and kind woman, a decade younger than Bob.
But earlier this year when visiting Bob's house, Margaret suffered a stroke and died.
I think that was the beginning of the end for Uncle Bob. He said he only had two remaining wishes, to see his 104th birthday and to die in his own home.
Bob spent Thanksgiving with family, but didn't appear to be feeling well. On Sunday, Nov. 30, he was taken to the Samaritan Hospital in Troy, with shortness of breath and an overall feeling of malaise. The doctors said he was dehydrated.
My cousin Bob, whose Mom, like my mother, was Uncle Bob's half-sister, lives to this day in the house on the knoll where I spent my early years, just up the hill from Uncle Bob's house. My cousin reported that he, his brother and his sister-in-law were able to hold a small but enthusiastic birthday party for Uncle Bob in the hospital - cake and candles, and hospital staff joining in.
My uncle's spirits appeared better he said, and my cousin and I discussed whether Uncle Bob might just need a better diet and a little more company. Bob lived with only a cat for companionship now, my cousin told me.
But he also reported that doctors were saying Uncle Bob could never go home again and would have to be placed in a convalescent home. Family members were already talking about placing the cat with someone else.
But Uncle Bob would have none of that. I had called to talk with him and he told me that 104 was going to be his last birthday. I was surprised, and saddened to hear him talk like that. But he said it matter of factly, not with animosity or even regret.
My cousin told me that Uncle Bob was adamant about going home, just as others who wanted him in a care facility were unyielding, and he said it looked like a showdown was looming.
So, four days after he turned 104, having survived more than a century of good times and bad, maladies and celebration, during which he never lost his faith or his composure, Uncle Bob did the only thing he could do to avoid being sent to a care facility instead of back to the home he had built with his own hands. He up and died before anyone could place him elsewhere.
I guess he got the last word on that argument.
My mother said it best. He wanted to die in his own home, but he was being told he couldn't go back. It took the heart out of life for Uncle Bob.
He had built that house out of a barn on his stepfather's farm and it has stood as a home since then with little change. It was his home and it was a reflection of his values. It was where he wanted to lay his head down one last time.
Uncle Bob never craved the spotlight, yet his actions spoke volumes more than words, and through his steadfastness and faith made very real contributions to humanity. To the very end he was in full command of his faculties, and as I see it, he pretty much decided it was time to die, so he did.
I doubt it was mild dehydration, nor even the shortness of breath that brought the end. Bob made it clear in our last conversation that he still cared very much about his remaining family and friends. But if you look at his life objectively, it is not hurtful to conclude that the people who were the closest to him over the years are gone.
Sometimes death comes when a person believes there is no longer a good reason to stay alive. And it is quite likely that Uncle Bob believed there is a better place waiting for him, and there was no reason to delay going there.
If we are lucky, and deserving, he will be right, and waiting for us.
You see, of course, if you're not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once.
All at once, and nothing first,
Just as bubbles do when they burst.
The Deacon's Masterpiece, by Oliver Wendell Holmes
Friday, December 12, 2008